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October 16, 2008
Chef Allen Susser put sofla on the fine-dining map in the 1980s. Now, casual is king at his landmark eatery.  by Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
Chef Allen Susser put sofla on the fine-dining map in the 1980s. Now, casual is king at his landmark eatery. Although in the 1980s he was one of the hot young chefs who put South Florida and New World Cuisine on the culinary map, there are young people who think of his restaurant only as a fine dining place where their parents took them to enjoy birthdays and bar mitzvahs.

And for Susser, this is troubling. So after 22 years, he's decided to reinvent himself one more time.

"The beginning of this year, I started looking around at what's going on with cuisine and food," he says.

What he discovered is that a lot of chefs are closing their fine dining restaurants and opening casual spots. It's an international trend. In Paris, Alain Senderens transformed the famed three-star Lucas Carton into the more casual brasserie Senderens. And Michelin-rated chef Pierre Gagnaire took over Gaya to create a seafood bistro, Susser explains.

On a recent vacation to Paris, Susser ate at Gaya with his family. He says the only way he could get his children to go was to promise them a meal elsewhere later. But when he put the simple fish dishes in front of the kids, they wanted more.

After this experience, he decided he wanted to create the best seafood restaurant in South Florida. But with the economy tanking, other components of his cooking had to be economical and provide comfort. So he decided to simplify his menu by cutting back on the descriptions of dishes and offer more straightforward, robust fare.

And instead of being a special-occasion, destination restaurant, he wanted to be a place people would come for a snack after a movie or for dinner with the kids. A place they could wear blue jeans and run into friends.

So he "threw everything on the table." And what landed is Chef Allen's Modern Seafood Bistro.

"We're no longer the most expensive place in town," he says. In fact, a regular customer recently looked at the new menu posted by the front door and said, "Great, now I can come two or three times a week." That brought a smile to the chef's face.

He's added a snack section to his menu featuring items such as Crab and Coconut Dip served with plantain chips. It's flavored lightly with coconut milk and made creamy with mayonnaise.

As an entree, you might try the local fish in his Red Snapper with Fennel, Orange and Olive Slaw. Basil, fennel and the earthiness of the olives, along with the tang of the oranges, complement fresh fennel as a bed for the fresh fish. He likes to leave the skin on his snapper, which he pan sautes so the skin becomes crispy, adds flavor and "bistro style" to the dish.

At other times, he likes to serve the snapper whole so guests can dig in. Cooking fish on the bone adds flavor, he says.

Of course, he has other comfort foods on the menu, including steaks and chops such as his Lime Grilled Pork Chop With Pineapple. Many people think pork is dry because it's bred to be lean. And then they apply a dry rub of spices, which does nothing to moisten it, Susser says. Instead, he soaks the chops in a brine flavored with lime juice, garlic, cilantro, oregano, parsley and cumin. "It's easy to do at home," he says.

These grilled chops are served with grilled pineapple, one of Susser's beloved tropical fruits, as well as Ancho Chili Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges for a simple and homey dish.

Now to update that decor. "I felt it had to be younger and more open," he says.

So he closed his doors and went to work. He knocked down a wall that divided the bar from the dining room and got rid of the dated glass block.

"I want the dining room to be active and social," he says. "Otherwise you might as well eat alone at home."

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